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The Influence of Byzantium: Origin of Two-Headed Eagle in Coat of Arms

From Byzantium onto Russia, Serbia, Montenegro

St.Petersburg eagle / Photo: George Shuklin / wikimedia

Heraldry is a knowledge about coat of arms, and it has its origins from the 11th century. This knowledge has its own rules and most of them are general and universal. Every coat of arms has to be completely unique, and two similar coats of arms need to have some differences. Also, one person or the holder of the coat of arms can have only one. There are also some specific rules, though they are not so universal and can vary from country to country.

Serbian coat of arms, together with the Serbian land, began to develop in the Middle Ages under the influence of Byzantium.

Source: Wikipedia/Nemanjić dynasty Fojnica Armorial

The two main elements of the Serbian coat of arms, double-headed White Eagle in flight, a shield with a cross and four characters in the form of the letter “S” descended from the Nemanjic and Lazarevic dynasty.

As in Byzantium, these heraldic symbols were created independently of one another, but the Serbian symbols were later on combined into the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Serbia.

Crests have begun to develop as an identification symbol of crusader troops in 12th century. The main signs of the crusader crests were a shield with a cross and four figures between the arms.

Byzantine heraldry shields

After the fall of Constantinople, Komnina founded the Empire of Trebizond in Asia Minor, and the coat of arms, took the golden two-headed eagle in flight on a red field. In 1261 Nicene tsar Michael VIII Palaiologos freed Constantinople from the crusader occupation, so restored Byzantine emblem changed to a red shield with a golden cross and four gold letters V. This coat is in short called Byzantine heraldry shields.

Source: Wikipedia/The double-headed eagle device used by John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425–1448)

In 1402 Stefan Lazarević received from the Byzantine regent John VII the title of despot and following the model of the Byzantine shield, he made coat of arms of the Serbian Kingdom that displayed red shield with a silver (white) cross and the four characters in the form of S.

Two-Headed Eagle

Double-headed eagle appeared first in Mesopotamia, about fifteen centuries before Christ, as a dipole symbol of old religions. In ancient Greece (polytheistic) religion, from the 8th century BC, Zeus was the supreme god, lord of the sky, thunder and time. He sat on his throne on top of Mount Olympus with the lightning on the left and scepter, on which stood an eagle, in his right hand. In the 2nd century BC, the Romans took the name of Zeus under the name of Jupiter, and single-headed eagle became a symbol of the Roman state and the military legions.

Source: Wikipedia/Emperor Maximilian with the Imperial Banner (Albrecht Altdorfer, ca. 1515).

Under the influence of Roman state, the Byzantine Empire in the early period used the single-headed eagle as a symbol of the old Roman state power. In Byzantium around the 10th century reappeared ancient double-headed eagle, now as a symbol of the words of Christ that speaks about the balance between man’s spiritual and material needs. This type of Byzantine double-headed eagle with half-spread wings and relaxed feathers in heraldry is defined as a two-headed eagle in flight.

The Fight for the National Emblem in Serbia

After the Second Serbian Uprising, Serbia led the fight for official state symbols – the coat of arms and flag. Serbian cross as already widely accepted Serbian emblem was on the stamps of prince Milos and it also was the prince’s personal and national emblem. Serbian coat of arms was legalized for the first time in the text Sretenje constitution in 1835 and then the Sultan’s decree.

The appearance of the coat of arms remained recorded in the header of the Serbian Newspaper and on the one picture of Jovan Isailovic Jr. On the red shield the cross was white, a Serbian cross was originally blue, so the coat of arms included the national colors of the Serbian flag – red, white and blue. Later, Serbian cross was shown in white.

Source: Wikipedia/Coat of Arms of the Principality of Serbia

With the Proclamation of the Kingdom of Serbia, 1882, Serbian national emblem changed and became even more complex, but the Serbian cross remain its central part. Serbian coat of arms was replaced with the Croatian coat of arms and emblem that represented Slovenia, and a new coat of arms of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) took its place. On the coat of arms of Yugoslavia there were no national insignia, nor Serbian coat of arms, but only party and political symbols.

Source: Wikipedia/Emblem of Yugoslavia

The Republic of Serbia finally solved the problem of its new coat of arms in 2004. Then, as the emblem of the Republic was accepted the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Serbia from 1882 with minimal changes in the blazon. On the new-old coat of arms was again Serbian cross.

Two-Headed Eagle in Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania

Montenegrin Coat of Arms:

Source: wikimedia

Serbian Coat of Arms:

Source: wikimedia

Russian Coat of Arms:

Source: wikimedia

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